Why Juilliard Quartet Insists on Mixing New Music With Old

MUSIC: INTERVIEW

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE contrast couldn't have been greater: Beethoven's masterful romantic String Quartet (Opus 132), with the grand architecture of its outer movements and the intimacy of its Molto adagio, performed together with Stefan Wolpe's bracing, angular two-movement ``Quartet'' (1968-69), with its muscular string writing and subtle use of Jewish folk tunes, jazz, serial, and atonal techniques. Could both pieces please the same audience? - one like the crowd assembled here recently at the University of Connecticut for a concert by the Juilliard String Quartet.

For the group's first violinist, Robert Mann, the question is beside the point.

``The Wolpe `Quartet' is not a great audience-pleaser,'' says Mr. Mann, a founding member, ``but the Juilliard Quartet has always been willing to sacrifice that slightly easier path of playing music that audiences easily like, and we've decided to give equal emphasis to both the music of our time and the music of the past.

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``We took a stand,'' he continues. ``We said, `If you want the Juilliard, you'll have to take some Wolpe along with Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.' And naturally we haven't made as much of a commercial success because of this attitude. On the other hand, ... we have slowly built a reputation; so people are willing to accept us on our own terms.''

I spoke with Mann just before the Storrs performance. As he explained, the Juilliard sees itself as part of the history of music-making.

``In Beethoven's time,'' he says, ``they played music of the contemporaries of Beethoven. They seldom played earlier works, although they did play some. Then, when concertizing was no longer underwritten by the church or the nobility, and when making music become more of a financial and material effort, people like [violinist Ludwig] Spohr and [pianist Franz] Liszt began to play concerts to make a living. People like [violin virtuoso Nicoll`o] Paganini had to sell tickets. These circumstances marked the knife-edge difference between musicians who are truly interested in the art and those who were willing to make compromises to achieve financial success.

``What it comes down to,'' Mann continues, ``is the fact that there are great 20th-century compositions, whether they appeal to the broad public or not. Some artists insist that this new music means so much to them that they won't give it up, despite pressure from the audience, the media, and the management.''

Today the Juilliard String Quartet has about 600 works in its repertory. Of those, almost 200 are pieces composed in this century, especially works by Americans.

Despite a number of changes in the personnel of the quartet over the years, it has retained the commitment to modern music. How?

``When we started the quartet,'' says Mann, ``we were all committed to contemporary music. Then, when one person would leave and somebody else took his place, we were only interested in people who had an enormous range of musical taste, which included modern music. If somebody said, `I'm sorry, I have no talent for playing that kind of complicated score, and I don't like it and won't play it,' well, we just wouldn't even consider that person. So in a sense, the mentality of the quartet has been self-generating.''

On the other hand, the Juilliard Quartet doesn't claim that its affection for 20th-century music is unconditional. For instance, Mann recalls that ``in earlier days I wasn't crazy about Milton Babbit's works for string quartet. Then we spent a year-and-a-half really studying his `Fourth Quartet,' which was written for us, and we came to a much deeper understanding of the work that gave us a far greater ability to perform it. Now, we're very excited about Babbit's music.''

The quartet also likes to cross musical boundaries: It has played the music John Lewis has written for the Modern Jazz Quartet. And Billy Taylor is writing a septet for his jazz trio and the Juilliard, which will be premi`ered this spring in Milwaukee.

Our conversation is interrupted when the stage manager reminds Mann that it's almost time for the performance. He smiles apologetically and says, ``Let me end with this thought. ... The only responsibility of a musician like myself is to keep in touch with his own motives for making music. And while we don't want to just hit home runs or to be the heroes of the broader public, we have to keep our eye on that public and not divorce ourselves from our audience. If we really love the music, it doesn't make any difference whether it's new or old. We can still share our love of that music with the public. As far as I'm concerned, that's all there is to it.''

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